3 weeks ago I was running my CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS course in London, and it was another very enjoyable, creatively charged day.
What always strikes me about this course is the number of brilliant ideas that come out of it – ideas that I encourage the writers to develop beyond the course.
The more I run this CREATIVITY course or do these exercises with writers, the more I’m struck by a slightly uncomfortable observation – that the story ideas that come out of these very brief, artificial exercises are usually more intriguing and exciting than the ideas in most of the scripts I read, and in most of the projects I develop with writers more ‘organically’.
It also brings home to me just how incredibly important it is that there is a really engaging, exciting idea/s behind your script.
If you haven’t got this great idea at the heart of your story then, no matter how well-written your script is, you’re going to find it very hard to really make it fly. And conversely, if you do have a great idea at the heart of your script, then you can get away with a multitude of writing sins. And, indeed, it will just make your script much easier to write.
It’s so rare that I read a script and think – ‘Wow, what a great idea for a story!’ But so exciting when I do.
Here are just a few ideas that came out of my 2 most recent courses that instantly grabbed me (most of these ideas came from newspaper articles / photos / ads) –
This idea came out of putting together an article about old age pensioners and an advert for a bath hoist (for lowering physically frail / disabled people into a bath).
(Often the best ideas seem to come from combining two seemingly incompatible ideas – or characters!)
This isn’t so much a story idea as an image – an old person is lowered by a hoist into their bath – but they keep on going, down, down, down into an alternative / fantasy wonderland world beneath their bath water.
And that’s it. So not much to it – but it’s an image that has stuck with me – in its combination of the mundane and the magical – the use of a bath hoist (a most unromantic contraption) to create a story idea that’s about magic, fantasy and, above all, about an escape from the sad descent into old age. It just strikes me as a brilliant image / metaphor that is utterly filmic – and from which all sorts of story possibilities suggest themselves.
A story about a celebrity and her quest to become an unrecognisable non-celebrity. So this isn’t entirely original (echoes of NOTTING HILL among other films) but I loved its simplicity. In one short sentence you have a character, her issues, and her quest. That simple short sentence is a brilliant pitch. Of course, you’d need to put lots more meat on the bones – but what a brilliant story starting.
A story about modern Greece, set just in the (fictional) future, after its failing economy has led to the country becoming part of the German Empire – – and told through the traditional story-telling techniques of Greek tragedy. Again, this is so simple but such a strong, headline idea. The sort of big, bold, political idea that so few writers seem to tackle.
A drama series – SECRET LIVES – the central character is a therapist in an NHS psychiatric unit. A precinct drama focusing on the relationship / sessions between our central female therapist character and a different guest patient every week. Each story focuses on the breakdown / crisis / catalyst that hospitalises the patient character – and the series will flashback into the patient’s life to uncover past incidents that led to their present crisis. The therapist works with patients to uncover memories and experiences that caused their current mental state.
Over the course of the series the female therapist’s life is gradually revealed through her patient interaction (although we never go home with our female therapist). She’s brilliant at helping others – but not so good at helping herself.
Series philosophy – to challenge the stigma of mental health issues – our guest characters are ordinary people with ordinary problems.
A comedy series – BIRTHDAYS – about two party entertainers for the children of rich people.
THE REWARDS – another series – about an amoral legal firm, and the new (moral) clerk who gradually discovers the dark secrets within the firm.
ANN MAGUIRE – a factual drama single film for C4 which cuts between the lives of teacher Ann Maguire and the child who killed her, in the days leading up to her murder.
COBALT – a single film centred round a cobalt mine in the Congo, and two young children who work at the mine. The repercussions for these two children and the multi-national corporations when the cobalt mined for mobile phones turns out to be faulty. An epic, international, multi-layered drama about exploitation and the international economy.
200 MILES TO DIE – a road movie / TV film (based on a true story) about an old man who walked from London to Manchester, lay down and died on top of a hill.
You may wonder why I’m airing these ideas in public and not hanging onto them jealously (or at least allowing the writers who pitched them to do so). But what I’m trying to demonstrate is how easy it is to generate ideas of this quality and originality, given the right conditions – bouncing ideas off fellow writers, being put under time pressure, getting ideas directly from newspapers and other external sources – all techniques that remove ego, self-censorship and stress from the process of creating new ideas. Good ideas shouldn’t be discounted because they were generated easily and quickly.
The originality and strength of these ideas compare very favourably to so many of the scripts I’ve read recently. And really this is only the tip of the iceberg. These are all scripts that I’d be fascinated to read.
A lot of these ideas are good because they’re based (loosely) on reality (200 MILES TO DIE, COBALT) or they’re absolutely about a real event (ANN MAGUIRE).
And some of the others stand out because of the clarity and simplicity of their narrative premise.
At the end of the day, it is always about execution – but execution is nothing without a great idea.
If you are interested in finding out more about these creative, idea-generating exercises, I am holding a one day course at the Indie Training Fund in London – STORY, IDEAS & CHARACTER – on March 16th
NB After this week, my weekly newsletter is going to change to become FORTNIGHTLY ie the next newsletter will be on Friday March 11th, and then every two weeks after that.
All the best
Feb 26th 2016